If there’s a reason that Gulf Coast cruising is not much talked about, I can’t tell you what it is. Three friends and I spent a month this past summer exploring the towns and marine parks of the Gulf shores under sail and found more than a few reasons to talk about it.
This trip was my first long sail in many years, and the first I’ve made on my own boat. After two years of hard work and restoration, my Cape Dory 28 was finally ready to sail, and I had no trouble rounding up a crew. We set off from New Orleans in early May, heading to the Florida Keys in a series of offshore jumps.
We planned to hurry through, having judged the northern Gulf coast before we saw it. Judging from the charts, the area appeared monotonous: it lacked the dramatic landscapes of the Atlantic East Coast and the sandy isles of the Caribbean. Then there was the oil. America no longer talks much about history’s worst oil spill, but it is still on the minds of the locals. I was worried about what we might see, and afraid that the coasts would be so peppered with rigs—charted and uncharted, active and abandoned—as to turn navigation into a sort of high-stakes guessing game.
What we found was very different. Even at night the rigs didn’t prove much of a navigational hazard, though there was one apocalyptic morning when we sailed past a rig that crouched over the sea like a giant spider, literally spouting fire into a red dawn. And these waters are teeming with life. We caught tuna and king mackerel and watched pods of dolphins play in our bow wave; sharks swam languid circles around us when we were adrift in a calm, and there were occasional glimpses of timid sea turtles.
The landfalls were another pleasant surprise. Western Florida is particularly beautiful, and completely unlike the rest of the state. Along with the extensive National Parks System, for which the state is famous, a scattering of picturesque small towns present a welcome contrast to the high-rise cityscapes of south Florida.
Our favorite town was Tarpon Springs, a lovely piece of Americana with a living waterfront and a very unusual history. Long before there was Scotch-Brite, natural sponges were harvested from the seafloor, and Tarpon Springs was the largest sponge port in the United States. This industry was almost exclusively the domain of Greek immigrants, who were recruited for their diving skills. Hundreds came to fish for sponges, and in the process they transformed the town.
These days a little commercial sponge fishing remains, but tourism reigns as the main industry. The sponge-fever can get a bit heavy-handed, with sponge boat tours, sponge museums and sponge warehouses, but the history is interesting, and the lovingly restored fishing boats are quite impressive. Scattered throughout town are dozens of excellent Greek restaurants and bakeries, as well as a majestically gilded Greek Orthodox church.
Farther down the coast is Florida’s hidden cruising gem: the Everglades National Park. The park itself isn’t exactly low profile, but many people don’t realize you can sail there. The vast majority of the park is too shallow for keelboats, but there are memorable exceptions.
Just north of Cape Sable, for example, is a well-marked channel into Little Shark River with minimum low-water depths of six feet. This mangrove-lined channel winds upriver for five miles before opening out into Oyster Bay. The bay has no markers and quite a few shoals, but its tangle of mangrove islets makes for great dinghy exploration. These swamps are the ocean’s great fish hatchery, and they are teeming with life. The easy fishing attracts thousands of birds, and the seagrass is home to Florida’s most beloved mammal, the manatee. Although the manatees themselves proved elusive, we saw hawks, herons and dozens of snowy egrets fishing among the mangroves. There was more wildlife and fewer people here than anywhere else I’ve sailed in the United States.
Better still, although Everglades National Park may be the largest protected area on the Gulf coast, it is only one of many. Florida alone has nearly 10 million acres managed for conservation, many of which are in marine parks.
Particularly beautiful, we discovered, are the handful of barrier islands that run along the Gulf coast, which have great anchorages and endless opportunities for exploration. The protection they offer from the open Gulf of Mexico also makes for excellent sailing along the ICW. Whenever the hustle and bustle of the area’s town and the powerboat traffic along the ICW got to be too much, we would pick out a nearby protected area on the chart and escape into some of America’s most impressive natural landscape.
In the fact, despite our original plan to make a straight-line track to our ultimate destination, we found so many arresting vistas in the swamps and islets of the Northern Gulf that we barely made the Keys in time for my crew to get home to their other commitments. Somehow, I don’t think they were disappointed.
Paul Calder just sailed from New Orleans to Maine.
He kicked off his winter with a delivery from
Annapolis to the Caribbean
Photos courtesy of Paul Calder; map by Isa Pagani